Thursday, March 6, 2014

Ash Wednesday Sermon: "Until the Opportune Time"

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. 2 There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. 3 The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”[a] 5 Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. 7 Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”[b] 9 The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you 11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.[c]” 12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.”[d] 13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity. (Common English Bible)

Ash Wednesday 2014

The print on the outside of the envelope was impeccably legible: “To be opened by Taylor Smith on April 13, 2023 only!”  But then underneath that, written in far tinier script, were the words “unless said otherwise.”

Taylor was a 12-year-old girl writing a letter to her 22-year-old self in the spring of 2013, and by the end of this past January, she was dead, succumbing suddenly to a bout of pneumonia.  And her parents, deciding that need did in fact dictate otherwise, opened up her letter.  What they found amazed them, and this is just one tiny excerpt of it:

I was in Cranks, Kentucky, for my first mission trip.  I’ve only been back for six days!  Speaking of, how’s your relationship with God?  Have you prayed, worshiped, read the Bible, or gone to serve the Lord recently?  If not, get up and do it now!  I don’t care what point in our life we’re in right now, do it!  He was mocked, beaten, tortured, and crucified for you!  A sinless man, who never did you or any other person wrong!

I love that last line.  Who never did you or any other person wrong.  And that’s a winning streak that began as early as in the story we just heard, of Him resisting the temptations of Lucifer.

I use this story at the beginning of my Ash Wednesday sermon every year here (at least, so far), because it is such a good one for setting the right balance in mood and tenor for a service like this; I simply cannot ever not pass up a repeat telling of this story.  The Reverend Lillian Daniel, an immensely talented pastor in the United Church of Christ, writes in a book on pastoral ministry that she co-authored, called “This Odd and Wondrous Calling,” about her experience as a pastoral intern at a parish while in seminary.  She writes:

I remember sitting at the back of the sanctuary, reviewing my notes for my very first seminary-intern sermon.  It was to be a mighty word from god that would correct all the hypocrisy, greed, and faithlessness of the local church that was, nonetheless, supporting my education as they had supported that of so many others.  As I mustered my courage to sock it to them, I overheard one woman lean across her walker and whisper loudly to her pew mate, “Ah, our new intern is preaching.  I see it’s time for our annual scolding.”  Later, I would pastor a church near that very divinity school, and hear for myself a few “annual scoldings.”

Now, we have no seminary intern here to deliver us our annual scoldings—you just have me!  And it would be all too easy to dismiss Ash Wednesday as the day when the parish pastor administers said annual scolding, but it would be exactly that: easy.  Too easy.  Ash Wednesday is not really about me scolding you so much as it is about taking on a sort of renewed baptism: just as we hold baptism to be an outward sign of the inward reality of a redeemed soul, so too do we hold ashes as an outward sign of the inward reality of a repentant soul.  Today is about taking a day—not even a day, but merely an hour—of our time to acknowledge our repentance.  And in contrast to our hour here together tonight, Jesus spends forty days, alone, in the wilderness. 

Well, not entirely alone.  He has a fasting buddy who goes by many names—Beelzebub, Lucifer, Satan, the Devil—that guy.  And said fasting buddy of course turns out to be the worst accountability partner possible, because it isn’t just that he tempts Jesus—it is that he does so repeatedly.  You won’t be tempted by bread?  Okay, how about by political power?  Lather, rinse, and repeat.  And that is often true to how temptation often works today, too, right?  Maybe the first time you are able to say no, to resist, but bit by bit your resolve is worn down until you give in to whatever or whoever is tempting you.  Sure, you might feel comfortable not wanting to do something with someone, be it drugs or drinking to excess or any number of things, but the more you get asked, the more your “no” looks conspicuous.

And so too, then, does Jesus’ “no” to Satan look more and more conspicuous—more and more worthy of our attention—because it is repeated.  And here’s the crucial thing: that “no” is not simply isolated to these forty days.  Luke is very clear about how he ends this passage: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from (Jesus) until an opportune time.”  That is perhaps the most difficult truth about resisting temptation: it is never, ever over.  It can always return, and it often will.

That means it was never over for Jesus, either.  He probably faced temptations of varying sorts and types throughout His ministry, and certainly so at Gethsemane, which is where some traditions say Satan made his grand re-entrance to tempt Jesus with thoughts of backing out at the 11th hour from what He knew must ultimately happen.  Either way, though, this is partly what makes Jesus so great: it wasn’t that temptation simply never followed Him around, but that it did and He was able to overcome and transcend it.

But there is something to the idea that Jesus was likewise tempted by Satan at Gethsemane prior to His arrest and crucifixion.  For one, it bookmarks Jesus’ entire ministry: it begins and ends with Jesus’ “no” to Satan.  But both the wilderness and Gethsemane also most likely represent Jesus at His weakest: when He has gone so many days alone while fasting, and again when He is about to die.  And that is so, so often the opportune moment for temptation to return.

One of the most important parts, then, about resisting and overcoming temptation is to recognize those moments when you yourself are at your weakest—whenever those moments might be.  After a big argument with your spouse or significant other.  Maybe after being laid off from a job.  Or simply when your stress level has hit its maximum.  Whenever those moments are, knowing that they are the moments when you are weak is so, so vital.  Acknowledging your own weakness in that moment can paradoxically make you stronger—it can make you more able to see through that moment of weakness and move on to the next.  It’s a little like the twelve-step maxim of recognizing your own powerlessness…only then can you begin to move forward.

Jesus, though, is not powerless, and that is precisely the point of Satan’s temptations.  As New Testament scholar Sharon Ringe puts it, “None of the tests proposed by the devil…would have had Jesus do anything inherently harmful or evil, and in each case good could result from what the devil proposed.”  A hungry appetite could be sated by bread.  A world given to Jesus’ authority would surely beat the authority of Caesar or even our own politicians.  And angels catching Jesus out of thin air could have done wonders for the faith of any who saw it happen.

So what’s the big deal, then?  It’s that we would have to go to any such lengths to justify giving into temptation.  It is a great rule of thumb for life in general: the more you have to justify something to yourself, or to someone else, or to God, the higher the chances are that you probably should do whatever it is you are trying to justify.  But once we surrender our power to those things we ought not do, we are cutting temptation’s power off at its very source: our ability to convince ourselves that what we do is okay after all, that it is different for us, we’re special, we’re not like all the other awful sinners out there.

Here’s the thing, though: we are exactly like all the other awful sinners out there.  That’s the whole point of us needing redemption.  Maybe we think that some of us need it more than others, but that does not mean that any one of us does not need it.  We all need it, period.  And we can wait until what we think is the opportune time to reach for that redemption, or we can reach for it here.  Now.

A little girl writes a letter to herself, and for her, the opportune time to open it is ten years from now.  But now, for her grieving parents, the opportune time to open it has already arrived.

A Messiah wanders out into the wilderness by Himself, and while for Him it might be an opportune time to center Himself, it instead proves to be an opportune time for the devil.

What, then, in your life, is the opportune time?  When does temptation always seem to seek you out the most?  I just talked about your weakest moments, but those are by no means the only moments.  Evil sees all of our moments, and evil can rule over any of them that we let it.

Until the opportune time.  Not for evil, but for us.  Until the opportune time when we are able to stand firm, when we are able to be strong, when we are able to look the devil in the eye as Jesus does and say to him, “Do not put me to the test!” 

Until the opportune time…when you can recognize your own frailty, your own weakness, your own inability to always do as Jesus did, to “never do you or any other person wrong,” and resolve that at least for this moment in time, you will be Christ-like. 

At least for this moment in time, you will resist evil. 

At least for this moment in time, you will overcome temptation.

And at least for this moment in time, you will transcend your own mere weakness.

That is why you—me—all of us are here tonight.  We are here in search of our opportune time to be the Christians—the little Christs—that God calls us to be.  May that opportune time come to you, and quickly, and often, for as long as you continue to believe.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 5, 2014

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